First came the flood of questions.
What time would the school day start? How long until kids could be back in school full-time? Who would clean the classrooms? Could school-aged children be trusted to wear masks? Would advanced learner programs be available?
Then came the decision: Napa Valley Unified School District would go online-only for the fall.
The school board late Thursday night voted unanimously to approve a virtual start to the upcoming school year, a move cemented Friday afternoon by an announcement from state officials that counties on the state’s monitoring list, including Napa, must begin with distance learning this fall.
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Beyond the classroom Florence Ropelewski’s 6-year-old son was set to start first grade at Browns Valley Elementary in August. Last year, as a kindergartener, he’d had his year upended by the sudden plunge into distance learning — a twist that had posed a challenge not only for him, but for Ropelewski, a realtor, and her husband, a pilot.
Ropelewski’s husband has not flown in almost four months, she said. His steady presence at home meant the pair were able to double team education and entertainment efforts for her 6-year-old and her 3-year-old son, whose daycare program was also put on hold because of the pandemic. Even with the two of them home, though, things have not been simple.
“It doesn’t change the fact that it’s been extremely hard on our family,” Ropelewski said. “We have both of our children with us, and we’re trying to manage meetings and distance learning.”
Her rising first-grader is actually a diligent, focused worker, she said. He sat quietly and did the work he was assigned by his kindergarten teacher — a small blessing for Ropelewski, who said she empathizes with the parents of children who need more monitoring and attention to sit still and work.
Especially of concern to Ropelewski, though, is socialization: the time her son spent with his peers not just inside the classroom, but out of it on playdates.
“That’s one of the main reasons why we send our kids to school — why we don’t home school them,” she said. “I can already see the effect on my kid in how he behaves around other kids or with his baby brother. His patience has dwindled, and he’s not as sociable or as friendly as he used to be while he was in school.”
She and a few of her neighbors have discussed forming a small group of students to be educated as a group, possibly in the presence of a tutor. They’re in the process of interviewing candidates.
“If we want to maintain our jobs, we’re going to find a way to keep educating our child,” she said. “It’s partially so he doesn’t miss out as well, but also so we can maintain our schedules as professionals.”
Robert’s (name changed for privacy reasons) oldest daughter was set to begin kindergarten at one of NVUSD’s elementary school in August. Both he and his wife work, and the news that the school district would begin the year entirely online came as a severe disappointment to him.
“My job doesn’t pay me to facilitate homeschooling throughout the day,” he said, voicing frustration over the district’s decision. There had been no dialogue with parents, he said, and now there was very little left to do about the matter.
His middle daughter, a 3-year-old, was as of Thursday set to attend pre-school in person at a small Christian private school in the valley. He planned to try everything he could to secure his oldest daughter a spot in the same school in the hopes that she would be able to attend in-person.
Though local cases have spiked, the death rate had remained relatively low regionally, Robert said, cementing his belief that it would be safe to return to the classroom. Not only would in-person learning hold his daughter’s education to a higher standard, but it would allow her to socialize with her peers, he said.
A safe return
March’s quick pivot into distance learning was a serious undertaking — both for students and their teachers, according to Mike Willmarth, director of communications for the Napa Valley Educators Association and a seventh grade math teacher at Redwood Middle School. Not much notice was given to teachers — the district closed for the school year March 16, four days after encouraging teaching staff to create a plan to bridge the gap between learning in the classroom and learning remotely.
NVEA was supportive of the district board’s vote, Willmarth said. He has heard from a number of the union’s educator members who worried not only for their own safety but for the safety of their students. He referenced three teachers who had shared a classroom while teaching virtual summer school in Arizona in early July; even without students in the classroom, all three caught COVID-19, and one of the teachers died. That “sent a collective shiver through the profession,” Willmarth said.
July marks the middle of the district’s summer break, giving the district’s teachers time to plan out and adjust to the concept of distance learning, Willmarth said.
Parents should expect that this year’s schooling will be much more rigorous and engaging, according to Gayle Young, president of NVEA.
“There will be attendance being taken and grades will be implemented,” Young said, noting that had not been the case at the end of the last school year when attendance was for large part not mandatory and the district switched to a pass-fail system.
“I do think the expectation coming up to date is that there will be a robust distance learning program based on what is happening in the classroom,” she added. “It’ll be very different than what it was like during the spring.”
Both she and Willmarth voiced empathy for working parents and parents of young students like Ropelewski who are concerned with both education and socialization. NVEA and its members, too, would like to return to the classroom — but it must be safe to do so before that move gets the green light, Willmarth said.
“The goal is to go back and stay back,” he continued. “We don’t want a situation where we restart and then have to close again—that just creates so much uncertainty for families.”
Much of the details of the coming school year remain to be negotiated between the district and its teachers, Willmarth said. There has been some discussion of elementary school teachers potentially scheduling one-on-one time with their younger students — kindergartners, for example, like Robert’s daughter, who are just being introduced to their education. And parents who are concerned about their children interacting with peers might plan to educate or play in small, safe groups, as Ropelewski may do.
“No question that we’re not going to be able to create the environment that school affords,” he said. “There are things parents can do to try and (move closer to that environment). We know it’s challenging — we heard a lot of talk from parents and our own teachers who have concerns about childcare.”
Asked if she believed her son would return to his first-grade classroom in person this year, Ropelewski laughed a little.
“What do I think? Or what do I hope?” she said, explaining that while it was her distinct hope that the district would find a way for students to return safely, she was not sure that would ultimately be the case.
She was disappointed, but also understood the district’s decision.
“I can’t tell you how much I admire what they’re doing — how hard of a job I think it is,” Ropelewski continued. “I’m not criticizing them, and I’m ready to be patient.”
Robert, though, felt differently.
“I understand the need for this in light of the what the climate is around new cases of COVID, but we have to live our lives,” he said, speaking Thursday before Newsom’s announcement.
Ultimately, Willmarth said, the decision is now somewhat out of the district’s hands: Governor Newsom’s strict criteria for reopening schools saw to that. And he believes the decision to go online only ultimately protects everyone involved: students, parents, teachers, janitorial and tech employees and the rest of the school’s underlying support staff.
“Safe” to reopen will mean different things to different community members, Young said. NVEA would like to see a 14-day decline in cases before they consider reopening schools, and to see Napa County come off the state’s watchlist.
“It’s important for us to see that cases aren’t spiking, that we have hospital capacity, and that we are safe within our community—that we aren’t dealing with something that is out of control,” she added.
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You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or email@example.com.